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The First Paradox: Death and Life – Gift of Water Sunday

September 17, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation: Gift of Water Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Season of Creation was first adopted in 1989 by the Greek Orthodox Church. It spread rapidly among protestant churches in Australia, Europe, the United States and Canada, promoted by the World Council of Churches. In 2016 Pope Francis urged its observance by all Catholics. Resources for worship this year were prepared by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and reflect the global nature of our observance.[i]

 Mark 8:27 – 9:29

Do you remember all the rain we had at the beginning of this past week? On Tuesday I took advantage of a promised break in the constant rain to take my son and a few other boys for a hike in the woods. We missed our window though and as we started down the trail the rain resumed – we could hear the shhhhhhhhhhhhh of raindrops moving across the treetops in our direction. But we remained dry because the overstory was so thick that the rain barely reached us. My plan had been to let the boys explore and have an adventure on their own, so I let them journey on while I sat myself down under a tree. I breathed in deeply the wet soil. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of rainfall, and the drops of water working their way down the forest floor. And I thought about water.

Water is vital to life, foundational to all living things, basic to existence as we know it. Water truly is life. Or as we have learned to say in the language of the Dakota Sioux in Standing Rock, mini wiconi.

I let my mind wander as I sat there. Listening to the sounds of water falling now all around me, I thought about…

  • All that was growing in the forest around me, soaking in the wetness;
  • Hurricane Florence already bearing down in North Carolina, and of the millions of humans (not to mention wildlife) who would be evacuated, left without power, trapped by the rising water;
  • Typhoon Mangkhut which was even then gathering strength to do the same in the Philippines, and then on to China;
  • The inevitable and inescapable articles that would appear this week connecting climate change and extreme weather alongside the President’s future-forfeiting announcement this week that he is going to relax rules regulating the release of methane gas (a greenhouse gas 73 times more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere);
  • I had just finished reading a book about rising sea levels, flooding, and the future of coastal cities like Miami and New York, which vividly described the sewage, disease and toxic effluent which is present when communities like those in North and South Carolina flood;[ii]
  • I thought of the courage of people like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who put together the scientific proof that the residents of Flint, Michigan, and particularly infants and children, were consuming lead in their drinking water, and of the criminal cover-up that preferred denial to truth-telling and adequate response;[iii]
  • I thought about the announcement two months ago that water, a living ocean, had been discovered in the polar region of Mars; and the announcement last month that our own arctic ice north of Greenland is breaking up for the first time in human history;
  • I thought of the waters of our local Bronx River, and our canoe trip on it earlier this year;
  • And the water in my own body;
  • And the waters of my baptism…

And then I fell asleep!

I don’t know how long I slept, but I woke up because I had a powerful sense of presence. I opened my eyes and there, right in front of me, not two feet away, was a snapping turtle. With one leg raised to take a step, it froze. I stared. We talked. And I prayed.

It did not escape me that one of the indigenous names for the North American Continent is Turtle Island. Eventually I got up and let her be so that she could continue on her way. This was, after all, her forest.


We live in a world of beauty beyond comprehension, a glorious bit of earth and water resplendent with sight, sound, smell, and touch . . . a shimmering sphere created and destined to provide abundant life for all. The beauty within people – in their compassion, tenderness, courage, tenacity, and resilience – is another face of creation’s splendor.[iv]

As we turn to our scripture this morning we come to the second half of Mark’s gospel. We have been reading this gospel almost straight through on Sunday mornings all year long. Up until now we have followed Jesus on his campaigns of feeding, freeing, healing, and restoring hope in the peasant villages and communities of Galilee and surrounding regions. Central to everything he did was the idea of a Kingdom of God that could be apprehended, received, realized, only through fait – faith in the kingdom itself, a present and coming time when there will be no tyrants ruling over us, no cultural or physical walls dividing us, no poverty born illness making life more difficult than it already is, but instead a covenant sense of community, conscience and care binding us together.

At the very beginning of the gospel story, Jesus issued his first call for women and men to follow him – he invited them to join him in fishing for people as God’s kingdom is realized. Now, as we enter the second half of the gospel story, Jesus issues a second call for women and men, Gentile and Jew, to follow him – by taking up their cross and joining him “on the way.” He does not yet tell them where this way is leading. That will become clear soon enough. In the meantime, as they travel, he offers these instructions (chapters nine and ten) for the community he is creating.

The instruction begins in chapter eight with Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Various answers are offered before Peter declares that Jesus that he believes Jesus is the messiah, God’s anointed (8:27-30).  Jesus then instructs his disciples, including Peter, not to say a word about this because, frankly, Peter has no idea what he’s talking about. That becomes obvious just a moment later when Peter refuses to believe that a messiah must can suffer, be killed, and rise again. And not just a messiah, but all of us. And that is the point. Jesus is inviting us to join him “on the way” that entails risk and loss and potential martyrdom. Joining him “on the way,” involves confrontation with those who, and that which, oppresses life, and a necessary solidarity with those who suffer as a result.

I have printed the whole of Mark chapter 8:27 through chapter 10 in the bulletin this morning because these are the texts we will be reading from now through November. And they need to be appreciated as a part of a whole. I have found commentaries that describe these chapters as Mark’s garbage can or parking lot, the place he put all the stories and teachings he didn’t know what else to do with. But we will work to understand the pattern, because for Mark (as it was for Jesus) this is the pattern of discipleship.

  • Three times Jesus tells his disciples, the crowds, those gathered around him, what is coming. These are portents – warnings of what is likely to happen.
  • Three times his disciples not only failed to understand the portents but actually resist Jesus’ way: they actively work against “the way” he is teaching them. First Peter (8:32), then John (9:32 & 38), and finally James (10:32 & 35ff).
  • Three times Jesus invited them to consider a paradox: that those who seek to save their life will lose it, that whoever wants to be first must be least of all, that being great does not mean ruling over but serving other. These are like Zen Buddhist koans, riddles or puzzles to be worked out in the life of the community rather than rules to be followed.
  • Jesus then illustrates these paradoxes in his encounters with others, with a suffering father and child, a sad rich man, comments on family life, parables and sharp rebukes to his disciples. When the pattern becomes clear, it becomes clear that this is the pattern of new life. An embrace of risk and possible death or martyrdom as a non-violent community confront a community of violence. A redistribution of power within the community and reparation for past and justice. And a refusal to participate in a politics of power. We deal in greater detail with these topics in my Bible study on Monday nights. Here on Sunday mornings we need to apprehend the only way to follow Jesus is to stand in solidarity with him as he stands in solidarity with all those who are victims of martyrs to this violent world.

Jesus is preparing his followers for a confrontation. Over the next eight weeks we will join Jesus ‘on the way’ which will become increasingly clear is the ‘way of the cross,’ and we will listen to his lessons on life and death (the first paradox), embracing non-violence, redistributing power and resources (the second paradox) and renouncing power over others (the third paradox). These are the themes of these chapters.

As themes these are, I will grant, easy to miss. In the episode of Jesus freeing a child from a spirit that throws him down and torments, an illustration of death and life, a significant part of the story how Jesus’ cure looks worse that the original condition. When Jesus frees the boy of the violent spirit that sought to destroy him, the boy falls down ‘like a corpse’ so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But they would be wrong. Jesus ‘raised him up.’ The disciples are as yet to unable to see past their fear of death to embrace the life on the other side. This comes only with prayer.

And what is this prayer? Jesus needs those who follow him to reflect upon the real risks they are taking and the dangers they are confronting so that when the moment comes they can act on their best moral impulses on behalf of God’s kingdom way, and not from reactive fear.

Earlier this year I shared a story in a sermon that I would like to share again this morning, because it illustrates how difficult it can be to act on our best impulses in the face of real risk, and touches again on our worship theme for the day – God’s gift of water and our need to cherish it. [v] (I spoke extempore telling this story though I reproduce it here as I preached it before.)

The story took place during the time I spent (along with Rev. Sarah Henkel and Will Summers) in Standing Rock, North Dakota, as part of the clergy gathering of solidarity in November 2016. You will recall that the Standing Rock Sioux, joined by representatives of nearly every North American tribal body with support from non-indigenous people across the country, were occupying a portion of their own un-ceded land through which Dakota Access Pipeline was being laid to carry oil for export from the Bakkan shale oil fields in North Dakota all the way to ports in Louisiana. At issue was both indigenous sovereignty, which the United States has never respected, and clean water, on which the Standing Rock Sioux, and all of us, depend. By protecting their own watershed, the “water protectors” were protecting all of us.

The frontline of protest was the pipeline path, but while we were there a decision was made to take the protest to the governor in the capitol city of Bismarck. We gathered at the capitol building and a small group occupied the lobby. This group was told that the governor has already left the building – whether he was hiding or had fled we don’t know – and when they insisted the governor either come down or come back this first group was arrested and bussed away to jail. Those of us outside were then ordered to disburse. Instead, we marched three-blocks to the governor’s mansion and gathered on the sidewalk across the street from his home. The governor came out to watch us, but refused to meet with the indigenous leaders who wanted, among other things, a stop to the intense police violence at the protest site. That, after all, was the reason over 1000 clergy had come – to stand in solidarity beside indigenous leaders who were daily being beaten up, gassed, shot, infiltrated and chased by dogs. When the governor chose to watch rather than talk, standing behind the line of perhaps twenty armed police officers, four persons from our group crossed the street, stepped onto the governor’s property, and knelt down to pray for the meeting to take place.

At this point nearly a hundred militarized police appeared in full riot gear with masked helmets, shields, clubs, and assault weapons. They appeared from where they had been waiting around the corner for just this moment. They came from every direction. A young Sioux was snatched from our line and taken hostage by the police. With each order for our immediate dispersal, the line of police would advance toward us across the street. Our leadership was negotiating the release of the prisoner. And the weapons kept getting closer. We were offered a “free speech zone” several blocks away where we could continue our protest – out of sight of the governor, out of sight of the neighbors, and most importantly out of sight of the commuters now returning home from work. One very smart and experienced organizer suggested we walk back and forth on the sidewalk, moving but staying on public property, continuing to exercise our first amendment rights, and removing any legal basis for arresting us.

Now here is my point. I’ve been to enough protests and marches to know this was smart move. I leapt on the opportunity to start moving rather than simply standing in front of the advancing police line. And I experienced no small amount of relief from the fact that we were, for the moment, marching away form the weapons. Back and forth we went, I went, weighing my relief with my fear and a sense of cowardice, not feeling good about myself, but also not wanting to be hit. But when it became clear that the indigenous leadership was not moving, that one of them was still a prisoner, that negotiations were continuing … when it became clear that they were staying, then it became really clear where I belonged, come what may. At that point my sense fear evaporated, I had a sense of resolve instead, and I took my place again on the line.

Knowing where to stand, or who to stand with: this is the key. This is love, not as thought or feeling, but as solidarity. And this love casts out fear.

Solidarity ‘on the way’ is what Jesus is training his disciples for. Embracing Jesus’ way, joining him ‘on the way,’ absorbing this way of the cross, is what we do when we are baptized. When a representative of the long continuity and community of faith takes us in hand, plunges us beneath, or pours over us, cleansing and copious water, we are baptized into Jesus’ way of death and resurrection. And with the symbol of water this includes solidarity with creation. As it has been written, “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy.” And our immersion in local waters enters us into necessary care for creation. The Affirmation of Faith that we will read after our sermon hymn this morning develops a theology of the cross both ancient and contemporary, that of Christ crucified in a crucified earth and of Gods saving power and presence indwelling the created world.[vi]

Let us re-affirm our baptism into the way of Jesus, a way of death and new life, as we sing our sermon hymn, “Baptized in Water” (G2G, 482).

Gurukul Theological College, India

 We believe in God,
who creates all things, who embraces all things, who celebrates all things,
who is present in every part of the fabric of creation.

We believe in God
as the course of all life, who baptizes this planet with living water.

We believe in Jesus Christ,
the suffering one, the poor one, the malnourished one, the climate refugee,
who loves and cares for this world and who suffers with it.

And we believe in Jesus Christ,
the seed of life, who came to reconcile and renew this world and everything in it.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the breath of God, who moves with God and who moves among and with us today.

We believe in the everlasting life in God.

And we believe in the hope that one day
God will put an end to death and all destructive forces.





[ii] Jeff Goodall, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of eh Civilized World. (Litte, Brown, and Company, 2017).

[iii] Mona Hana-Attisha, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City. (One World, 2018).

[iv] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “A Theology of the Cross for the ‘Uncreators’” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, edited by Marit Trelstad. (Fortress, 2006).

[v] Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary, “Forty Days Hiding in Fear with Elijah,” March 12, 2018..

[vi] “Christ is baptized…” was written by Maximus of Turin in the fifth century. Cited in Benjamin M. Steward, “The Stream, the Flood, the Spring: The Liturgical Role of Flowing Waters in eco-Reformation” in Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril, edited by Lisa E. Dahil and James Martin-Schramm. (Cascade, 2016).

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